Steroids rant

The coverage of steroids in baseball and Barry Bonds has been annoying me no end, so I wrote a long rant about it. Behind the cut so that I don't take over anyone's friends page (I ended up going on and on about it).

So, the current hot story in the sporting world is that Barry Bonds, home run hitter extraordinaire for the San Francisco Giants, admitted in testimony a year ago to having at least once used substances that were almost certainly steroids. He's claiming that he didn't know what they were and that his trainer just gave them to him and said they were lindseed oil and an anti-arthritis cream. Basically no one, including me, actually believes that; Bonds isn't that stupid.

First off, this is at most a mild surprise. Sure, Bonds has been claiming for years that he doesn't use steroids, but it's pretty much certain at this point that somewhere between a significant minority and an outright majority of Major League Baseball players are using steroids. (Personally, I think the same could be said of just about any other major sport and the only thing that changes is how subtle and careful they are about it, but that's another rant.) To listen to portions of the sporting news, you would think that this is some sort of devastating revelation. That's nonsense. We've known this for years.

Now, of course, people are freaking out. Ban him from baseball. Strike all his records. Footnote all his records. We must have drug testing now. The same kneejerk litanies over and over again, and just as with the idiotic War Against Some Drugs, few people seem to actually be thinking.

Let me pose a question: What's actually wrong with steroids?

The strongest argument is that using them is cheating. The definition of cheating is doing something against the rules, and sporting rules don't require any inherent defense. They can be completely arbitrary as long as they're applied uniformly. You don't need any justification for making steroids against the rules any more than you need any justification for the allowable size of the bat or the weight of the baseball.

This also means that the rules of the game carry no moral weight. They're just arbitrary rules. And that means that when there's a rule on the books that in practice isn't called on the field and is widely ignored, it isn't some sort of moral flaw to play the game the same way the rest of the players play the game. How many people out there think it's cheating for professional basketball players to take extra steps when driving to the lane, when travelling is rarely called? How about John Stockton sticking his elbow in people's ribs on screens? When wide receivers pull tricks on the field to make something look like pass interference that probably wasn't, it's called a veteran move, a sign of an experienced player. Pushing the edges of the rules is widely considered part of the game. What makes steroids different?

The answer, of course, is that steroids happen off the field and they involve drugs. Let's deal with the second of those first.

Here are the basic reasons put forward for why athletes shouldn't be allowed to take drugs, specifically steroids: Drugs are inherently evil, drugs have nasty side effects, drugs are illegal, drugs destroy a level playing field, and drugs set a bad example for children.

The inherent evil argument is, of course, complete bullshit. The moral high-handedness here reminds me of the self-righteous War Against Drugs commercials decrying marijuana as the great evil, played immediately before beer commercials. The level of hypocrisy and outright lying is disgusting. The same argument applies to the supposed illegality -- for one, it's not at all clear that anything actually illegal happened, and for another, why are you so sure that law makes any sense in the first place? Why shouldn't someone be allowed to shoot up steroids if they have the money and want to, when they can drink themselves to death and no one even gives it a second thought? I'd love to hear the logical explanation, and if you tell me that steroids have more negative side effects than alcohol, I'm just going to laugh at you.

As for the nasty side effects, yeah right. I don't see people being particularly concerned with the long-term health of professional athletes in any other area. It's widely known and acknowledged that those people are out there killing themselves, giving themselves all sorts of serious long-term muscular and skeletal injuries (not to mention, in some sports, repeated concussions and brain injury) for our entertainment. Oh, yeah, and for millions and millions of dollars in cash. Steroids might have negative side effects on one's long-term health. So might getting tackled thirty times a game by 300 pound defensive lineman. Let's ban running plays in football. No? Then let's not be hypocritical about this, okay?

But what about the level playing field? If we allow steroids, then everyone has to take steroids to compete, right?

I hate to break this to you if you didn't already realize it, but professional athletes, regardless of whether they're taking steroids or not, do not go down to the grocery story and buy their meals like the rest of us, go work out at their local YMCA, and then go out and play in front of a national television audience. There is a reason why we spend lots of money to build Olympic training facilities and it's not because they look pretty. And if you think that a dietary supplement is affordable to anyone who wants to join the big leagues just because it's available over the counter, you're dreaming. Professional athletes have a support staff that costs a lot of money, steroids or not, and the few people who have so much natural talent that they can become world-class athletes without that support structure still get better when they have access to it.

Furthermore, while steroids may have more side effects and long-term problems than over-the-counter supplements, I have a sneaking suspicion that neither you nor I have really seen all of the data there, and again, if you think that many of the other things that professional athletes have to do to be competative at that level don't cause long-term damage, I think you're dreaming. We can start from the widely admired practice of playing hurt and go on from there. Professional athletics is simply not a profession that you go into unless you're willing to destroy your body for the money that you're getting, and removing steroids from the equation is not going to change that.

No, I have my own theory as to why people get so worked up about steroids, apart from simple ignorance, and it centers around the twin bizarre US obsessions with drugs as evil and athletes as role models. We know that what happens on the field is completely artificial and formalized, and we don't apply the same moral judgements to what happens there, but when it comes to conduct off the field, we expect athletes to be that mysterious form of being known as a "role model." I've never been quite sure exactly what that was supposed to mean, except that it clearly involves volunteering for good causes, not doing things that we don't want our children to do, and certainly not doing anything that might throw light on the sacred tenet of US politics -- all drugs (except alcohol, which isn't a drug, and caffeine, which is just normal) are evil. We want athletes to be the best that human beings can possibly be, and we don't actually mind them doing all sorts of incredibly artificial things to their bodies, but whatever they do must not involve anything that looks like a drug. Even if we can't point to any actual difference.

Look. I love watching sports. I like the drama of it, I like rooting for teams, I like the statistics and the analysis, I like second-guessing decisions, and I like the atmosphere of play on the field. But sports is like sausage; if you really enjoy it, you probably don't want to know how it's made. Sports involves a lot of money, a "power corrupts" quantity of money, paid to people who are not any different than average human beings except they're very good at some physical skill. Many of those people are not nice people. Many of them could have been nice people but get sucked up in the culture. Professional athletes are frequently amazingly sexist, horrifically bigoted, self-centered, arrogant, and deeply unpleasant people, and the money and bizarre pressures of athletics contribute to all of those tendencies. They are kids often barely out of high school who are getting paid amounts of money that defy human comprehension to do something they will often only be able to do for ten years in front of a broader audience than one can really imagine, after which the money will suddenly disappear and they will most likely be in constant pain for the rest of their lives.

But hey, they're still role models as long as they don't use steroids, right?

I don't really care if baseball wants to try to really ban steroids; like I said at the top, the rules of a sport are inherently arbitrary anyway. I do mind when it's being presented as a moral issue, given the degree of hypocrisy inherent in focusing on this issue while completely ignoring the rest of sports, and I think the reasons presented for banning steroids are just stupid. And I really think that Barry Bonds does not deserve to be singled out. Welcome to the real world, folks. This is how baseball is actually played. And we know Jason Giambi was also taking steroids, and I'm not noticing him challenging Babe Ruth's home run record.

Sit back and watch the show or don't, as you choose. I stopped watching rodeo because I couldn't stand what went into making the show. But I'm really sick of the hypocrisy from people who seem to want reality kept carefully away from their view, and who want to punish people, not out of a reasonable analysis of what they personally might have done wrong, but because they break the illusion.

Posted: 2004-12-13 15:45 — Why no comments?

Hmm. What's the issue with rodeo, the treatment of the bulls, or is there something else wrong with it?

Posted by Brian Palmer at 2004-12-15 04:52

The treatment of the animals in general -- not just the bulls, but also the horses (including the riding horses, frankly), the calves, etc. I mostly don't watch horse racing for the same reason.

Posted by eagle at 2004-12-15 16:28

I totally agree with you
what the fuck
i bet if they were in the same position they would take steriods to increase their salary pay

Posted by Ramon Godoy at 2006-03-16 19:07

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04